30 October 2012

Tondo As Art Form

Andy Warhol created this Tondo (Butterflies) in 1955, not long after Women's Wear Daily dubbed him "the Leonardo of Madison Avenue" for the success of his whimsical fashion illustrations.  In these butterflies, with their vibrant colors fluttering inside delicate blotted lines, you can sense a young artist chafing against the confines of commercial art.   The child of Russian immigrants, Warhol grew up in a religious family and continued to attend Mass and to participate in church works throughout his life. His  use of a circular form that was one of the glories of Renaissance painting suggests hist artistic aspirations taking flight.
The circle as an art form has ancient origins, usually seen as positive, and symbolizing unity or perfection.  Artists in  15th century Florence painted their round images on wooden panels and walls.  It was also customary to present a new mother with a round painted celebratory tray (decsa de parto) heaped with sweets. The sacred and the secular combined in underlining the importance of the circle.  The name tondo itself comes from the Italian word for round (rotondo).  Artists used the tondo frequently to depict mother and child in images of Virgin Mary and  baby Jesus,  Botticelli among them (see Madonna Of The Pomegranates).  Closing the circle of associations, for me, is a similarity between Warhol's butterflies and the blossoms dancing in air around Botticelli's Venus.
The sense of completeness  in these round images should not be taken lightly.  We are much more comfortable working with rectangular shapes and, in this,  artists are no different. 

 The cupola, or rounded dome, was also an architectural development of the Italian Renaissance that presented opportunities for painting in the round.      Lucien-Hector Jonas peopled his mural for the entrance to the Musee des Beaux-Arts  in his native city of Valenciennes with images from art and local history.
Garlanding the outer edge of the mural are figures of painters painting, models posing, and workers carrying canvases, along with groups of citizens in the streets.  In its center, which functions as background, the contemporary figures become part of a procession with  the arts of past eras, in architecture, sculpture, and a court painter at his easel.  Jonas may have intended him to represent Antoine Watteau, a local artist whose paintings the museum owned.

Today Pierre Albert-Birot1876-1967) is remembered for his work in the theater, as director of Apollinaire's  Les Mamelles des Tirésias (Tiresias's Breasts, 1917) but in 1916  Birot created a series of cubist paintings in tondo form depicting nude women in classical poses (see Nude Woman In Her Bath).  Like Marcel Duchamp in Nude Descending A Staircase and Picasso in  Les Demosielles d'Avignon, Birot also delighted in making viewers strain to find the erotic aspects in his nudes, something he knew they would do.

The circular format  continues to be used by modern artists as various as Monet, Braque, Picasso, and Jackson Pollock.
Passacaglia is one of several paintings named for musical themes by the American artist Augustus Vincent Tack during the 1920s.  Originally a medieval street dance, the passacaglia  became a set piece in Baroque musical suites.  Tack had studied the paintings of Giotto, a 13th century Florentine painter on several trips to Europe.   In Passacaglia he began with  a drawing he had made of Giotto's nativity scene, reinterpreted in semi-abstract terms while using the colors from Giotto's Lamentation, so this was no simple homage, but a more complex act of imagination.  
Along with the tondo, Tack  also made paintings in the shapes of  half-moons and stained glass windows, combing elements from Christian symbolism with modernism.  Duncan Phillips, whose eponymous museum in Washington, DC owns dozens of Tack's paintings, admired the artist for what he described as his "abstract mysticism."

Katherina Grosse (b. 1961) is a German artist who often paints directly onto walls as Renaissance fresco painters did, an influence she acknowledges in her  2006 Tondo.  The format has so many strong associations with the symbolic that even a work of determined abstraction is suggestive.  Look at the bright stripes of translucent color overlapping on what we've been trained to see as a flat surface,  and imagine layers  stretching back in space and time.  Once again we see the paradox that limits set the human imagination free.

1. Andy Warhol - Tondo, 1955, Andy Warhol Foundation, Pittsburgh.
2. Lucien-Hector Jonas (1880-1947), Cupola over entrance to museum,  20th century, Musee des Beaux-Arts Valenciennes.
3. Pierre-Albert Birot - Nude Woman In Her Bath, 1916, Pompidou Center, Paris.
4. Augustus Vincent Tack - Passacaglia, 1922, Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.
Katherina Grosse, Tondo, 2006, Pompidou Center, Paris.


Anonymous said...

Du hast hier schöne Beispiele ausgesucht. Danke.

Jane said...

Danke, flowerywallpaper Sie sind willkommen. (i hope that makes sense.)

Tania said...

Cette particularité du tondo - pour le peintre et, vous avez raison, aussi pour le spectateur - j'en ai fait l'expérience en suivant le travail de Gérard Edsme (contemporain). Permettez-moi d'ajouter un lien pour l'illustrer : http://textespretextes.blogs.lalibre.be/archive/2012/05/20/coeur-d-un-jardin.html

Jane said...

Merci, Tania. Yes, it is used for a reason and trying to figure out why a particular artist chose to use it is fun.